Sunday, 9 November 2014

Student Intern: Kellie Laity

Hi everyone! My name is Kellie Laity, and I am working on my Master’s Degree at Duke University in the United States. I had the pleasure of working with Matt and Kate at Neuras on my Master’s thesis during the months of June and July in 2014. My thesis is working for a company called WildTrack that developed software that can identify individual animals, as well as sex and age, by using photographs of footprints. Up to this point, the Footprint Identification Technology (FIT) has only been tested in captivity, in which it has worked wonderfully at identifying different individuals.
Leopard track

In captivity, we can manipulate the ground or lay down soft sand that holds beautiful, clean footprints. However, for those of you who have been to Neuras can attest, the natural ground is not as kind about keeping pristine footprints. My project is collecting photographs of footprints of free-roaming cheetahs from their natural environment and to test if FIT still identifies individual cheetahs from footprints on those ground types.

While at Neuras, my time was spent looking around the property for footprints, as well as helping Matt and Kate with the other projects running at Neuras. My two particularly favorite spots were the canyon walk and a riverbed on the back part of the property. The riverbed gave me some cheetah footprints, and several leopard footprints, which as a researcher made me very happy. The canyon walk was always a great opportunity to see animals, like mountain zebra, rock dassies, and kudu, plus several times we found leopard footprints walking through the canyon. When we did find leopard tracks, I was always thrilled and would spend a long time talking and taking photos of the footprints.
Exploring Neuras' Honey Canyon in search of carnivore tracks.

I’m sure the volunteers were not nearly as excited as I was, but it gave them an opportunity to learn how to identify different animal tracks. And in exchange for listening to me spout about the awesomeness of footprints (And my volunteers, you know that they are!), I always took them up to the photo spot that gave everyone a great view of the canyon and a great place to take selfies. 

While not hot on the trail of footprints, I loved getting to know all of the volunteers. Y’all are some interesting people! Top moments may have to be the P-Squiggle music video, the Great Danes scale all of the walls of the canyon, watching Karl dance, making High Tea for Matt with Georgie, pushing Nikki and Georgia up a sand dune, and of course Pizza Night! Matt and Kate make the best pizza, hands down! The best way to eat the pizza, dancing around with Corne. Makes Pizza Night that much more special. 
Kellie serving high tea to King of the Minions Matt as part of her attempt at achieving the ultimate minion rank of Empress Supreme Minion.

And possibly the most memorable pastime was pushing the cars. I took it on myself to be the group motivator as we pushed and I bet several volunteers have nightmares where I am saying “Alright everyone! 1! 2! 3! PUSH!” While push-starting the cars may have been an exhausting process, it allowed for great bonding and lots and lots of laughs. 
Kellie with one of our volunteer groups participating in a spot of Karl lifting.

My time at Neuras was fabulous, and not nearly long enough. To all of the volunteers I got to work with, I hope you enjoyed our time together as much as I did. Kate and Matt, thank you for all of your help, for putting up with my shenanigans, and for promoting me to the new rank of Empress Supreme Minion. Neuras will always hold a special place in my heart, and the people there make the experience magical.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Namibia is Ebola Free: Information for Future Visitors

Dear N/a’an ku sê friends, volunteers and guests.

In light of the recent Ebola focus in the media, we would like to soothe anyone’s worries about traveling to Namibia. 

The Ebola Virus has not erupted in Namibia, it is still safe to visit the most beautiful African Country.

Namibia is situated in the far southwest of Africa and is Ebola free. Namibia is one of the safest countries to travel to and around on the whole African Continent.

West Africa (where Ebola indeed is a hazard,) is much further away from Namibia than it is even from Europe. For example:

Windhoek to Sierra Leone : 8100km
Madrid to Sierra Leone : 5000km

There are also NO frequent travel connections (e.g. buses, trains or vehicles) along African routes like there are in Europe. Most of the air traffic coming directly into Windhoek is from Europe and not from African countries. At airports and borders official healthcare units scrupulously examine every single passenger before granting entry.

Last and not least, N/a’an ku sê prides itself on being the only organisation in Namibia catering for guests and volunteers that has a qualified doctor on the premises.
Dr. Rudie van Vuuren, founder of N/a’an ku sê, has infectious diseases as an area of expertise. He has dealt with hemorrhagic diseases like Ebola before, meaning you are safe in Namibia and well looked after at N/a’an ku sê.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Einstein Update: You Win Some You Lose Some

Now not to worry, Einstein is alive and well; unfortunately however, he is now inside a large enclosure at N/a'an ku se's Wildlife Sanctuary. The reason for this is because in only a few weeks after his release Einstein proved himself to be a habitual livestock killer.
                       Einstein in the transport cage on route to N/a'an ku se's Wildlife Sanctuary.

Einstein had been a suspect in several other livestock kills last year but immediately after his collaring the signs were encouraging as we discovered his first kill of a Kudu. Sadly this proved the exception and not the rule.

The problem started when we received a call early one morning from one of our neighbours who had woken up to discover two of their sheep dead. We and our volunteers immediately drove to the farm to investigate the scene. Over night the sheep had been kept inside a well constructed kraal meaning the culprit had no problem jumping fences. Inside the kraal we found the two sheep who had been left as they were found; there were bite marks around the throats of both sheep and one had been completely opened with the stomach removed.

                       Bite marks around throat.                                        The removed stomach.

This evidence pointed clearly to cheetah as they have weak jaws and always suffocate their prey by clamping down on the throat and often remove the stomach which they leave untouched. In comparison leopards often kill their prey by biting on the back of the neck and are strong enough to jump over fences with the carcass. A hyena has the strongest bite of any mammal and kills are often found with crushed skulls with full parts of the body missing.  Due to the other sheep trampling over the scene and hard substrate, tracks were difficult to accurately identify, only one was clear on the outside of the kraal which we identified as belonging to a cheetah.

We discussed the situation with the land owners and they were happy for us to explore the area more to look for tracks, place camera traps and for us to paint lion faeces on the kraal as an olfactory repellent. At the time we didn't suspect Einstein as his most recent GPS location transmitted from his collar was far away from the area. However, when his next GPS point came in for the night the sheep were killed it was directly over the scene of the crime. Dishearteningly, to kill these two sheep Einstein had moved a significant distance through areas with game species. 

The scenario and nature of the kill was similar to the livestock kills we had seen last year but we wanted to give Einstein a chance to prove he wasn't an habitual livestock killer. Therefore, we began intensive monitoring of his movements; we changed the settings on his GPS collar (which we can do from a laptop) to transmit a GPS location every hour, so when he showed movement back towards the livestock area we could immediately go to his location and scare him away. This strategy appeared to be working and we were encouraged when he moved onto Neuras in an area we knew had many springbok. However, come the evening he had quickly moved through our farm and onto the land of the Zebra River Lodge to the south which we also knew had many game animals; we then hoped he would make a kill in this area.

Disappointingly, it would be the events of this night that would prove beyond doubt that Einstein had a preference for hunting livestock. Our farm manager Dawie was closely monitoring Einstein's half-hourly GPS points and saw that he was making a deliberate beeline back to Neuras, and to the kraal holding Dawie's sheep. Dawie jumped in the car and discovered Einstein inside the perimeter fence that surrounds the vineyards and our living quarters, chasing his cows with two sheep already dead in the kraal. Einstein was forced away but his actions had now sealed his fate; he had again moved through game abundant areas and showed great determination to enter heavily fenced areas close to human living quarters to gain access to livestock. We had no choice but to label him officially as a 'problem' cheetah.

Thankfully, Einstein's impulse to mark the tree where we had trapped him was still very strong and he had returned to it twice since his collaring.

                                         Einstein returning to the cheetah marking tree.

Two days after being chased away from Neuras he went back to the area near the marking tree so we immediately placed the trap cage back and just as before the very next morning we found him inside the cage. It was a very bittersweet moment for everyone; Einstein would no longer be a wild cheetah which was crushingly disappointing especially after the excitement we felt when we placed his collar on only weeks before. However, if we failed to trap him, sooner or later his preference for hunting livestock would have brought him into further conflict with livestock farmers and would almost certainly have resulted in him being shot.
                                         Einstein in the trap cage for the second time.

We are planing on building a cheetah enclosure here at Neuras this year and the plan is to bring Einstein back home to spend the rest of his life as a spoiled captive cheetah and to act as an ambassador for his species.

In closing, this was of course the outcome we wanted to avoid when we collared Einstein but it demonstrates effective mitigation of human/carnivore conflict. We have worked closely with our neighbours and were transparent with our intentions and methods. The case of Einstein has demonstrated to our neighbours that we will take action when we prove an animal is proven to be a livestock killer. This will hopefully encourage more farmers to call us for help and work with us to ensure cats, such as Lightning, that are not habitual livestock killers are able to remain in the wild.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Cave Adventure

The country of Namibia is a geologist's paradise, and Neuras with its Fountains, Canyon and Mountain range has plenty to keep them busy. Neuras has a unique cave system near our "Honey Canyon" that only two research teams have explored, once in 1995 and another in 2010. The full "labyrinth" like system was measured at 457 metres, reaching a depth of around 20 metres. Very few species were discovered with the most common inhabitant being the Loxosceles spider followed by bat species.

The reason very few have ever entered the cave is that getting inside is not straight forward as the entrance is a thin crack with a 5/6m drop to the cave floor. However, N/a'an ku se's directors Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren came to visit Neuras with their family a couple of weeks ago and curiosity finally got the better of them and a plan was made to enter the cave.

Myself, Kate and our excited volunteers signed up for the adventure and headed to the entrance, where those with a fear of heights started to have second thoughts! With the use of a car winch and a sturdy rope Marlice lead the way and demonstrated how it could be done (clearly having learned a thing or two from the baboons over the years!) and one by one we braved the descent. 
Once inside, the passage way extended only a few metres before narrowing to a small hole leading to a narrow passage where only two at a time could enter. If anyone head any sense of claustrophobia this was when it started to set in, a sense of dread probably not helped by the presence of a long dead cave guardian!
The narrow passage continued for another 10 metres opening into a chamber where the heat rose dramatically with Geckos crawling on the walls and where we found the bats!
It was an amazing sight and we could see the chamber continuing downwards where another hole lead to a further drop deeper into the ground. However, as tempting as it was to continue exploring, to proceed professional climbing equipment would be needed as one slip would result in a pretty nasty fall.

The next challenge was getting back out which proved slightly more difficult than getting down! But with a bit of team work and support everyone emerged safe and sound and buzzing from the experience!

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Volunteer Update - Week 32

 Week 32 volunteers.

"I have had a great week here at Neuras and gained some good research skills to assist with tracking carnivores. My favourite activities would have to be exploring the nearby canyons and of course meeting and feeding the cheetahs at the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre (NCCC)."
Leisa Woodhouse.

"The highlights of the week were the day trips to the NCCC and Sossusvlei. Feeding the cheetahs was a fantastic experience especially because Matt and Kate know each of the cheetahs so well - it was a special experience. The day trip to Sossusvlei was also amazing, it was a totally different place to go exploring with the breathtaking views from the summit of "Big Daddy"! I had an absolutely fantastic time at Neuras and am very sad to leave."
Lauren Howard.

"A suggestion of camping in the back of the station wagon watching for Mountain Zebra was amazing. The stars were bright, the moon fantastic and magical and the opportunity to be out in the wild listening to the Zebra was such a high. Preparing well with a hot water bottle, sleeping bag and blanket made for a very cool night."
Cat Anscomb.

"I absolutely enjoyed my time at Neuras, exploring the terrain on game counts and the two day trips as some of the highlights. For the week that I was there, there was an abandoned baby Kudu which had to be fed everyday and was amazingly cute!
Overall Neuras was a 10/10!"

Daina Waters.

"Thanks for everything Matt, Kate and Corne. I have had a fantastic week here at Neuras. Everything has been great, but my favourite activities would have to be the exploration of the canyons, the day trip to the NCCC and a great wine tasting and cheese platter from Corne."

Yasmin Rother. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

Volunteer Update - Weeks 28 to 31

Week 28 Volunteers.

Poppy Stanbury.

Week 29 Volunteers.

Week 30 Volunteers.

"What we liked most and caught our attention was the different ways to search for the big cats; VHF and GPS tracking, observation of tracks and scatology.  Although, despite all these efforts and the ways and the many tracks it is very difficult to spot the animals as they really melt into the surroundings!
The trip to the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre gave a close look at the way cheetahs respond to humans, moreover it is great to have a place that large for cheetah that cannot be released back into the wild."
Robert Vanden Eede and Christel Pissoort.

Ellie Cole.

Canyon hike in search of leopard caves (no luck this time but still a great view!)

Week 31 volunteers.

"Volunteering at Neuras was a very special experience. Researchers, staff and coordinators were so knowledgeable, friendly and engaging. Merlot the Kudu crept into my heart and I wish him a long happy life in the wild soon. Thanks Matt for performing "Superman" jumps numerous times at Sossusvlei. Neuras is a magical adventure and definitely worth a second visit!"

Lesley Ings.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Volunteer Update - Week 26

Week 26 Volunteers

"Staying at Neuras has been such an exceptional experience; seeing Sossusvlei, the infamous dunes and Dead Vlei was absolutely amazing. It was such a unique landscape and so amazing to see. 
Going to the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre (NCCC) and seeing the cheetahs was also incredible, never before would I have thought that I would be so close to cheetahs. Getting to observe their behaviour allowed me to understand them so much more; it was so beneficial to me personally considering I want to work in this field later on in life. It was such an amazing stay I hope I get to come back soon."

Madi Schuller-Chan.

"Traveling to the NCCC for the day was amazing. Being able to track via radio collaring, 6 unreleasable cheetahs in a 500ha enclosure was cool. We were also able to feed all of them which was unreal, and the photography opportunities were so good as my friend took a "National Geographic" shot:
See, so cool! Feeding and tracking a definite highlight, but tracking I thought was the most interesting. The whole time with research has been great!"

Sarah Cheney.

"We had been tracking Lightning the Leopard and were worried about the fact she had not been moving for three days. It was suspected that she could have been injured or hurt. We went to her location and everything seemed fine and her radio signal was moving; we then considered that she could be with cubs. We returned the next morning to place a camera trap close to her location but then we found a large Warthog Kill, which then explained her lack of movement for the last three days. It was incredible to see her patterns. 
Another incredible thing was how we got to track down the 6 cheetahs at the NCCC and getting to throw the food to them when they are so close. The enrichment item we gave to Teddy and Ayla was great; watching them struggle with the boxes to earn their food was classic!"
Stephanie Harvey.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Volunteer Update - Week 25

Week 25 volunteers: Teagan, Bree, Emily, Madeline, Lisa, Grushenka, Aswini, Kelly, Rita and Georgina.  And introducing staff member Karl Fester.

"When I came to this place I wasn't expecting something as good as what I found. I loved this and the people involved with the programme were very helpful. I initially came for one week but I will now spend another two weeks here - that is how much i like it!
From the first day I felt good vibes. The landscape is beautiful, and I really enjoy the car rides to our activities as the view is different every day. I thank all the team here for the experience."
Grushenka Vucetich

"My experience at Neuras thus far surpassed my expectations. It has been a privilege to assist such knowledgeable researchers and to gain experience in the field that will be valuable to my future research endeavors. Neuras is such a unique desert oasis, full of beautiful scenery, delicious food and wine and the friendliest staff you can find.....not to mention it's a birders paradise; it will be hard to leave!"
Aswini Cherukin.

"The highlight of the week has to be the six and a half hour "leisurely stroll" up and down the seemingly endless mountains of Neuras with Matt. This was to make note of any gaps in the perimeter fence. With the job complete and as complete exhaustion hit walking back to Neuras along the main road a friendly passer by helped ensure neither of us would have to carry back/drag/abandon the other. Nevertheless the trip was worth it for the wonderful views and massive sense of satisfaction at the end. The lovely lasagne for dinner that night could not have come at a better time, nor had I ever appreciated the amazingly comfortable beds at Neuras quite so much!"
Georgina Jones.